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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Chekhov stories

Chekhov stories from the late 1880s when he begins to think in broader terms and scale perhaps already scoping out some of his great dramas are much more imbued by poverty suffering and despair. One very sad example is Gusev set aboard a hospital ship transporting the gravely ill from far east back to Europe. Gusev longing for his Russian homeland - dreaming of the cold while in stifling heat and horrible conditions. One remarkable aspect of story is final sequence when g does and they sew him into a canvas bag along w some iron bars and send his body overboard and the narrative focus goes down to the deep w his body as sharks rip open the bag in the cold dark depths of the ocean - an amazing perspective and completely different from every other moment in the story. Makes burial at sea both peaceful and frightening.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Why A Boring Story isn't : early Chekhov

Chekhov's weirdly named story "A Boring Story" is not boring but it's not his greatest story either - it's interesting to see him relatively early in his career experimenting with a longer form, pushing toward some of the novellas he would later write, and even more important to see him develop one of the first of his characters suffering from the distinct form of Chekhovian despair that we all have come to know and appreciate mostly from his great dramas: the protagonist/narrator is an early version of a Chekhov type, the intellectual late in his life looking back at a lifetime of missed opportunities and misunderstandings. He's an elderly medical professor who has contempt for his students, his colleagues; feels little or nothing for his wife, whom he used to love, and for his daughter (though there are some moments of tenderness there - but he has no sympathy for her loneliness and disappointments) - the only person he seems to love is his adopted daughter or ward, a deeply troubled young woman who is in despair herself: a single mother, ostracized. There's a great deal of sexual undercurrent here, which Chekhov leaves as a background element, almost unstated - but there's certainly a sense that the professor is attracted to his ward because of her licentious sexual history, and that he is troubled to learn that one of his colleagues is courting her. Like many Chekhov stories, this one ends on an ambiguous note - the characters resigned to their difficult fates, to their loneliness and isolation - much like the endings of his plays. This story not as great as some of the later ones in that there's too much exposition, the protagonist states his beliefs at great length, whereas in the later masterpieces - e.g., Lady with a Lapdog - the despair is made evident by the action of the characters.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A lifetime told in a few paragraphs: Chekhov

Even relatively early in his writing career- the 1880s - Anton Chekhov was pushing at the edges of the short-story form, and we can see this in his story in the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection, Sleepy, a very short piece that on the surface is just a moment in the life of a young nanny - I had to go back to the begin to check, but she's only 13 years old - what's striking is how this story is entirely locked in her consciousness, she's trying to care for a colicky baby and she's constantly abused by her employer, a nasty shoemaker, not very well off himself, and his wife - and the nanny tries to stay awake and care for the crying child but her mind keeps drifting off into sleep : Chekhov plays at the borders between sleep and waking brilliantly, so that as we're reading we feel we're drifting into a waking dreams. In her dreams, in just a few paragraphs, we get the story of her troubled life, father dead, leaves home with mother, trekking down what seems to be a mud-soaked road, heading for the nearest town and some possibility of survival - and that's all we get of the past and all we need to know, now we're back in the present and we know why she's caring for a baby, we understand that she's separated now from all of her family - in fact we know and understand more about her than do her employers - for them, she just someone to order about - she becomes increasingly weary, she's just a kid, and then does something quite reckless (and a bit improbable) at the end of the story - Chekhov showing in this short piece how a single action and a brief moment in time can convey an entire life story and a social crisis: much more effectively than polemical works of 100 times the length. Next story in the collection, Chekhov is bold enough to title "A Boring Story," which is a sure sign that it isn't: there's boredom and tedium on the surface, an elderly professor worried about money and social status, but his superficial placidity hides a roiling depth of sexual drive and social perversion (I think - haven't finished it yet - it's almost novella length). Chekhov's output, in far too short a lifetime,during which he also carried on his medical practice, is nothing short of astounding.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chekhov's lasting influence

What a pleasure to begin reading the Pevear-Volkhansky translations of Anton Chekhov's Selected Stories - I've probably read about a million words in translation from P-V, and I'm very grateful for all they've done to make great Russian literature accessible to English-readers. This edition arranges the 20 or so stories chronologically, so it's very instructive to follow Chekhov's career and development as an artist. The first stories are still amazingly distinct and, probably in 1880s, very startling: bright, acerbic, just a single scene or moment or event, barely sketched in; the first in the collection about a lower-ranking clerk who sneezes during an opera performance and spends several days in agony about making an apology to a man of superior "rank," and when he completes the apology: he dies (story called The Death of a Clerk, I think) - short, strange, with a hint of a deeper meaning, making his obeisance is a kind of death foretold, his sense of inferiority makes him a living dead man. Reading deeper into the collection, we see the stories grow more mysterious and more distinctly Chekhov's - one example being the great one with a title that translates as something like Prayer for the Dead (we would say Kaddish): a man in church sees the priest staring at him after Mass, realizes the priest is angry because his daughter was a "harlot," man asks the priest to do a memorial service, priest agrees, and as the story ends Ch. describes smoke from the censer drifting its way in ribbons toward the ceiling: this story is an illustration in miniature of Ch.'s great work - the focus on ordinary people, their lives told in simple and stark detail, dialogue that's very natural, and, with a very light hand, use of mysterious symbols and a very open ending - a form highly influential in literature to this day, more than 130 years later - the obvious heir and benefactor in America being Raymond Carver, who revered Chekhov and whose last story was a tribute to the master: both understood the need for economy of words and action, authorial distance, focus on ordinary people and everyday behavior, an open structure, and the power of imagery when it can grow out of the action of the story rather than be imposed upon the story by the artist.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why I can't read Middlemarch

They say that Babe Ruth had such great vision that he could read a license plate two blocks away. Stan Musial talked about being able to see the seams on the baseball moving as the ball left the pitcher's hand. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby were legendarily protective of their acute vision. Maybe these guys could read the Norton Critical Edition of George Eliot's "Middlemarch" - and maybe as an NCE it's designed for college students who are not yet completely myopic. But I couldn't manage to work my way through an inscrutable font in a point size so minute it's probably measured in decimals. Thanks, W.S., for bestowing upon me an edition of one of your fave novels, esp. after I whined that the crappy old pb that I have on shelf is no longer in readable condition, but the NCE for me was impenetrable. I promise I'll read Middlemarch again, somehow and in some way, but not in this edition. If ever a book was meant for a Kindle, this one's it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Takes a train to cry: Denis Johnson's Train Dreams

Re-read Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams" and liked it more on 2nd go-round because understood this time through that the novel would not develop a plot in a traditional sense - as I think I noted in previous posts, it's quite unconventional for a novella. Most of the great novellas focus on one character or one action - that being the beauty of the form, its economy of expression, or compression, while allowing for a bit more play and development than the story form itself - but Johnson goes another route, this is a novella that's like a novel in miniature, spanning the scope of a character's entire life. At book group last night there was general though not universal enthusiasm for Train Dreams - two of us did believe that parts of it were a little too loose or sketchy: personally, I think he would have done better to focus on the one central action - the attempt to kill the Chinese worker, the ensuing guilt and flight, the death of wife and daughter by fire, and the expiation - and have left aside the sections about Grainier's later years of life, some of which - particularly the scene in town when he's stricken by sexual desire and the closing scene of the novella - are confusing. The central ambiguity of course is whether he daughter actually survived the fire and became a wolf-girl: obviously, that would not be possible, and the book seems firmly grounded in reality (if it were a fabulist story or an example of magic realism, we could accept the wolf-girl within the logical conditions that the novelist establishes) - so I think under the "logic" of Train Dreams the wolf-girl daughter is Grainier's fantasy and projection. Two stunningly beautiful scenes: walk through the hot ashes of the fire to find his burned cabin, and transportation of the wounded man by night. Also some extremely funny dialogue: man shot by own dog, and courtship of the widow. This novella simply imbued by death - and touched by hints of racism (against Chinese, against Indians) - and Johnson's point seems to be that these are the painful, ruinous consequences of man's attempt to control, simplify, or conquer nature.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Kafka on art : Josephine the Singer

I'd never read Franz Kafka's "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," the last story in the Modern Library "Selected Stories," and was moved by it reading it yesterday in a totally incongruous beach setting - an apt summation of the great stories in this collection - and possibly K's most direct presentation of the role of the artist in society. The title character sings for her people particularly in times of distress, and when she sings the word gets around and they gather around her - even though, as the narrator notes, they're pretty sure she's not really that great of a singer - and in fact they gather around to hear her out of a sense of loyalty of civic responsibility, sometimes she starts to sing and they crowd has to be herded together by officials of some sort; at times, she goes on a protest strike, once eliminating the grace notes from her songs, but nobody could tell the difference. Then she asks to be relieved of the responsibility of working, because she's an artist - this does not stand her in good stead. As with so much of Kafka, the meaning or significance is right before us but elusive: are great artists unappreciated? or are there a lot of phony artists beloved by the masses because their work is so ordinary and palliative? Reading the brief Philip Rahv intro to this edition, or in fact any work on Kafka, will tell you that he was oppressed by his tedious employment and wrote in what extra time he could find, sometimes in frantic all-night bouts of composition: of course he would sympathize with an artist who wants to be free of the responsibilities of work: but of course that's not really the point - for Kafka and for other great artists their artistry is a completely consuming form of work, a burden far greater and a responsibility far more profound than any conventional employment. All of these ambiguities course through this story, one of his best. (Funny that Rahv's 1952 introduction suggests it's too soon, at that time, to evaluate Kafka's work - even in the 1950s, readers were still just beginning to understand his profound influence and significance.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

First-creature narration in Kafka

Clearly Frank Kafka was experimenting with a new form, for him, in the two long and uncompleted stories near the end of the Modern Library "Selected Stories" : Investigations of a Dog and The Burrow. Both are first-person narratives, although the correct term might be "first-creature" narratives, the first obviously narrated by a dog and The Burrow by some sort of underground creature, probably a mole, although with odd human attributes, at least in this translation: has hair, and a beard, for example. The influence if any might be Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, the solitary outsider examining and questioning every facet of society - in The Burrow, this motif becomes quite literal. The strength of The Burrow, like Investigations, is how it makes us think, through examination of the consciousness of another, about our own consciousness, in a new way: the narrator of the Burrow has built himself an underground protective fortress, though he constantly worries about larger creatures that can devour him without warning, but he blithely consumes small mice and other rodents, without a thought as to how their existence is subject to his - on a literal level a shot at our human capacity to own pets and consume meat for dinner, holding conflicting views in our minds at the same time; on a deeper level, it's also about our position in the cosmology, subject to the whims of an unseen god and exerting godlike powers over our world. Also perhaps a political allegory of class power and oppression. The weakness of the story is that it goes on at great length without moving the narrative forward - Kafka apparently trying to develop this into a first-person novel but probably realizing he could not sustain the material, the voice, and the interest at that length and abandoning the project - just my own speculation here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fresh and surprising voice in current New Yorker

More props to The New Yorker for yet another good and unexpected story, from a writer anticipating publication of her first novel, Shani Bioranjui (?) - (just looked it up, I was close: it's Boianjiu) possibly an Israeli writer, as the story is set at an Israeli military checkpoint on the West Bank?, though it appears to be written in English (no translator credited: story called something like Measures for Crowd Management - (just looked it up, it's Means of Suppressing Demonstrations) - focuses on a 20-year old Israeli woman Army officer, doing her time in a remote outpost where not much ever happens, each night she engages in pretty violent and masochistic sex with the soldiers in her command - she claims her body is numb and she feels nothing and needs this inflicted pain to become aroused apparently. To everyone's surprise, one day 3 Palestinians show up at the checkpoint and rather than turn away the resist, but in an extremely polite way: they want the Israeli soldiers to put down their minute demonstration in hopes of attracting media attention. As a result, over a series of days, soldiers work through the manual - the title of the story - toward increasingly more aggressive measures of crowd control: sounds, tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition - it's kind of comical in a way - the officer carefully reading the instruction manual while the protesters wait patiently. Won't give away the end here, but the last sentence is quite a kicker. Story gives us a very sharp and believable glimpse of life in the occupied territories, it's political without being polemical, and Boianjiu tells the story through characters and through detailed observation: we feel a good deal of sorrow and empathy for the central character, confined or assigned to a detail that she variously considers futile and immoral, her life on hold and perhaps derailed forever by the events over these four days.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A dog's life - Kafkaesque

Franz Kafka never finished the longish story "Investigations of a Dog," and it's easy to see why - it's a meandering story that takes a long time making its key points - obviously another attempt by him to write a story from the consciousness of another species. But his earlier story A Report to an Academy, by an ape with human qualities, was much more successful, focused and with a more clearly defined narrative voice. All that said, Investigations still has enough Kafka elements to make it great by some measures, despite its lack of completion and overall structure: in particular, it has some good Borscht-belt humor, such as the basic credo of dog life: water the ground at every opportunity. What makes the story strange and worthwhile is the dog belief that food comes either from the ground (due to watering) or from above - and for the food from above the dogs much sing and dance - that is, act like dogs seeking human attention - but also, on a deeper level, like people, praying, for some blessing from an unseen god - so this is yet another one of K's stories about the inefficacy of religion, the disappearance of god, the idiocy of human-centered consciousness, and the loneliness and despair of the individual - Woody Allen meets Dostoyevsky (e.g., Underground Man) - and it all sounds miserable, yet the wit and humor make these stories very readable and enduring.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A subject fraught with danger for all writers

Few topics for a writer are as fraught with danger as the story of the suffering, misunderstood artist: the danger of self-pity, of narcissism, of narrow scope, of pallid unoriginality, among others. Many of the greatest writers have taken on the theme, with varying success - and usually in a veiled form: the sensitive soul sometimes portrayed as a painter rather than a writer, for example. And sometimes the story is not so much about the suffering artist but about the artist coming to shape his or her vision and sensibility: Joyce's Portrait is one great example, Proust's opus another (the narrator never defined as an artist - but clearly it's about Proust's maturing aritistry and personality), Mann's Tonio Kroger, to site three of the best, each radically different in style and format. And then there's Kafka: as with everything about Kafka, his portrait of the artist is strange and off-center and completely original and shocking - as in his short story "The Hunger Artist," where the art is not literature or the plastic arts but a performance art, an art of starving nearly to death while on public display. The essence of the story is that The Hunger Artist used to be a world-famous performer but now nobody appreciates his art anymore and he's stationed in a little cage outside a zoo, where a few people sometimes stop to look at him on their way to see the animals; when he dies, he's not found for days, and they replace him in the cage with a leopard. That's a very quick synopsis, but you get the drift: he's an artist unappreciated in his time, when people are drawn to popular entertainment - an all-too-common lament in every age. Could anybody have better claim to this lament that K., however? - a great thinker and writers whose works were at least 50 years ahead of his time, who was barely published and hardly appreciated in his lifetime, but must have known that he had a vision that would guide world literature for a century and would change, as much of the work of any writer in the past 100 years, the way we read and the way we think - a writer whose name would literally enter the dictionary as a descriptor: Kafkaesque.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kafka and the uncanny : Three stories

Three Franz Kafka stories that, at least in my mind, form a series or trilogy, perhaps because they are conjunctive in the Modern Language edition of Kafka's "Selected Stories," where I first encountered his work: A Report to an Academy, The Hunter Gracchus, and The Hunger Artist. I don't know if this collection is arranged consecutively, or if we even know the order of composition of K's works, but these seem stylistically of a piece and a break from his earlier stories that were more frenetic and extreme: these three very controlled and almost quiet, pensive. Report is told in first person by an ape who was captured and who learned human behavior as a "way out" of his captivity (a term he uses a lot) - on the most superficial level it's a critique of a supposedly civilized society that imprisons animals for the pleasure of humans, and on a second level a critique of a society that enforces various degrees of human slavery - but K's not primarily a polemical author - there are deeper and stranger meanings to all of his stories: the ape representing a part of all human behavior, the "id" would have been the term of art in K's day, and the unsettled quality of imagining an ape addressing a gentleman's club or whatever "academy" he's reporting to. Gracchus tells of a hunter who's brought into an inn apparently dead but then he wakens to tell his story to a visitor and apparently he is doomed to live through many cycles of apparent death and then revival, never able to find the peace of nonexistence; Hunger Artist about a man who "performs" by sitting in a cage and not eating, wasting away. What's especially strange about these 2 stories - like the Report - is that narrative tone, the calm and reasoned acceptance of this irrational behavior, supernatural condition, or surreal experience. (In the Penal Colony, one of the greatest of K's stories, is a parallel example, though in that case the oddity of the keepers of the execution machine is offset by the wonderment and puzzlement of their visitor, the Explorer.) Kafka consistently has the ability the make the uncanny all the more disturbing because it's not uncanny to his narrators or his protagonists.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Possible meanings of Kafka's stories

Franz Kafka's story "An Ancient Manuscript" purports to be just that - the conceit is that we're reading a surviving fragment from a civilization long gone. The fragment tells a very simple and horrific story: outside the emperor's palace, soldiers from invading tribes or villages are becoming and ever-greater and more powerful presence, to the point where the homeowners and shopkeepers in the neighborhood live in terror. The invaders don't speak the local language and in fact seem to be incapable of speaking any language. They grab from shopkeepers whatever possession or food they need. They particularly set upon the butcher. In one horrible scene, he tosses them a bone, and the people watch as one of the soldiers chews on one end of the bone and a horse eats the other - this doesn't seem to bother the savage invaders at all. In the most terrifying scene in the short story, the butcher decides to forgo preparing the meat at all and brings a live oxen into the street and leaves it there - the soldiers literally tear it apart alive, cutting slices of raw meat off the sides, flaying the beast, and eating the flesh raw - while the dying ox screams in pain and terror. The emperor's men peak out at the scene and retreat - there's nothing they can do to control this invasion. So what's this story about? Again, as in so many Kafka stories, it's in part about the helplessness of an individual before a failed authority, and, on a deeper level, about the suffering in a world abandoned by an god who has disappeared or who maybe has never existed. Could it also be about the early fears of a Nazi or fascist control of European cities? Could it also be about the demons and fears and terrors of the unconscious mind, rising up and overcoming the silent, weak, diminished superego?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Everybody's having them dreams: Real and surreal in Kafka's stories

It's no unique observation to note that Franz Kafka's stories are almost like transcriptions of dreams - we all have crazy dreams, and who hasn't at one time or another tried to capture one of those dreams by writing it down or at least telling the story? It's not as easy as it seems - there's a great deal of literary skill in conveying not just the incidents of the dream but the mood and the emotion - at this, Kafka excels. As noted in two previous posts, his stories almost always start off as a literal account of some rather mundane events - which makes the emergence of the dream-like imagery and events - the sudden shifts in time and space, the sudden appearance of startling characters or creatures, the unlikely weird discoveries and observations, the radical shifts in mood and behavior, the sense of unease and lack of control - all the more disturbing because he creates and presents them within a universe that seems literal and mundane. Great example is A Country Doctor, which begins with a good set-up sentence for any story: a doctor (the narrator) says he has to help a patient ten miles away but can't get a horse, his horse has just died (that in itself is strange) - and no one will loan him a horse (that's unlikely in reality - and is the first clue that we're not in reality) - then the events become more bizarre, horses and a groom emerge from a pig sty, the groom asssults the doctors maid, the doc is transported instantly to the sick patient, who asks to die, horses stick their heads in through windows of the sickroom, the doctor discovers on the patient a festering wound (rich with sexual symbols), the doc lies down next to the patient. It's one thing to simply transcribe a dream - which may have seemed novel in the early 20th century but seems pretty ordinary now - a freshman English writing assignment - but the greatness of Kafka is not only the dreamlike fiction but how this fiction conveys a sensibility and s sense of society: a narrator helpless in a world of distant authority figures, a culture helpless in a world of a distant and unknowable deity, a world without rules or moral forces or even expected codes of behavior.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

What makes Kafka weird

The Great Wall of China is another great exemplar of some of the key elements of Franz Kafka's sensibility and literary style: like most Kafka stories, it starts off in the most ordinary and matter-of-face manner: for the first fe pages, it's a somewhat drab and straightforward account of the process of construction of the Great Wall, and only a few pages in does Kafka establish that the story is being narrated by someone who was part of the construction process. He tells us that, rather than build the wall in long segments it was built in a series of short and unconnected segments that were late seamed together - though it is rumored that there are gaps in the wall, yet no one can be certain of this. The all as a series of small segments, unconnected in places, is an extremely strange and disconcereting image, typical of K: what we believe should be a seamless whole, a great monument of civilization, a force for defense from alien invaders, is in fact fragmented and broken: like our minds, and like out contemporary society in fact. After establishing this motif, K pushes the narrative further and darker: the teams building the walls are like impressed labor, kept from the families and homes for great stretches of time, moved about from segment to segment almost randomly, so none has a clear sense of the work as a whole - except that all are in service to the emperor. But who is this emperor? Perhaps he doen't exist at all. So again it's K's strange, or estanged, relations with a godlike - or father-like - authority figure. His stories are generally narrated as if they were relistic and straightforward, yet they encompass the most bizarre and disorienting sequences of facts and events, much like our dreams.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A capsule version of Kafka's themes

Franz Kafka's story "The Judgement," though not as well-known as Metamorphosis, The Hunger Artist, or In the Penal Colony (all great) is a capsule version of all of Kafka's major themes, which may be why the Philip Rahv edited Modern Library Kafka story collection begins with it: the story starts of totally conventionally, a young man sits down to draft a letter to a friend of his who's been living abroad (in Russia) and then, without your even realizing when or how, the story becomes progressively more odd and disturbing: the friend in Russia has been away for many years and is a social isolate, the man writing the letter declines to tell his friend abroad about his pending marriage, rather he makes up bits of small talk; the man writing the letter goes to his father to seek some advice about communicating the marriage. Uh, oh - father themes are a dominant motif in K's work - and the story becomes really odd when the son approaches the widowed dad, who's lounging in a dressing gown, in his room, where the son never ventures - dad lashes into the son, asserting the son is a weakling, the dad is the powerful one (so many Oedipal issues here - but it's not just that, it's a struggle for identity, and also a figuration of a religious struggle, young man against an Old Testament God) - father suggests the Russian friend doesn't even exist, by the end, the young man is totally diminished and hopeless. Kafka's stories, in fact all of his fiction, are about an individual helpless against a powerful and inscrutable antogonist - the father being the pre-eminent figure, but at other times the state or other authority figures. And like all of his stories, The Judgment is unsettling because it feels superficially so conventional yet its emotive contents are extreme and bizarre.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Provocative story in current New Yorker

Credit to The New Yorker editors for running another provocative story this week, Ben Lerner's The Golden Vanity (not sure what title means though it's referenced in the story) - this story pretty hard to recount (or recollect) and even if I could recollect it with perfect veracity I'm sure the story would not sound as good, as imaginative as it is - and isn't that in a way the defining characteristic of art? Frost said memorably "poetry is what's lost in translation," and we could say about fiction that literature is what's lost in synopsis - a great story is what it is because of what it is, if that makes any sense. To give a brief sense of this story: a nebbishy Brooklyn guy, like a Woody Allen of the current generation, frets about impression he's about to make on what seems like a blind date or an e-date with a librarian - worried that she will see him scowl about coffee spillage and think scowl directed at her, etc. - then that scene abruptly ends and he frets, with someone who seems to be a long-term relationship, about whether he should have local anesthetic or one of the drugs that induces memory wipeout when having dental surgery - and he goes on a long riff about will the memory of pain really be there? and in fact if he retains the memory in some way, isn't he in a sense like two people, one who experienced the pain and the other who did not? Which leads to a series of speculations about consciousness, memory, and how we are the sum of our experiences of course but what if your recollection of those experiences is faulty or absent - then who are you? And is the memory of an experience actually tantamount to the experience, or a new experience altogether? See what I mean - it seems as if you wouldn't want to read this story, but because of Lerner's tone and mental agility, the story takes some surprising twists and really makes you think about what it is to remember, to live, and to read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I'm puzzled by Train Dreams

Finished Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams" and have to say I'm puzzled - the novella truly has some great scenes, most notably the protagonist, Robert Grainier, slowly making his way into the forest after the earth-scorching fire that consumed his cabin and killed his wife and daughter, and Grainier, at a later stage in his life, running a hauling service and transporting a wounded man (shot by his own dog) through a lonely forest at night, the two laconic men engaging in some dialogue, at first very funny and gradually becoming edgier and more creepy, as the wounded man talks about ghostly characters that haunt the woods. Some other very fine descriptive passages as well: the young man hauling sacks onto a wagon who says he's feeling dizzy and then falls to the ground dead is another example. Fine writing throughout - and yet, and yet - really what does it all add up to? As readers of these posts will know, I do look for plot and an arc of a story in the fiction I read - and in a way that's especially true of a novella, a form perfectly designed for a single fictive action that has a beginning, middle, and end - or, put another way, crisis, conflict, resolution. Train Dreams does not - the plot jumps around a bit in time, and that's OK if all the pieces are place by the end - but in TD the elements of a plot never gel: at one point I thought the story would be about Grainier's attempt to find his daughter, who may have survived the fire. It's not that the plot has to encompass a single action, though that's good when and is a staple of the greatest of novellas - see James, Chekhov, "The Dead," "The Bear," A Month in the Country, Light on the Piazza - and so on - but another possibility is to watch a character change, evolve over a long period of time, and I don't believe that really happens satisfactorily in TD: Grainier is a sad and lonely youth, blessed with a happy late marriage, which we see for a moment only, and then suffering a loss, and for the rest of his life he's a social isolate, as best we can tell. He doesn't change radically - and the world around him doesn't change radically, either. Part of the theme is man v nature, but that's not developed in any thorough way. I don't know - I will definitely re-read, but as of now I see a lot of great elements here but I don't get the overall picture.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Got a job in the Great North Woods: Train Dreams

Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" jumps around a bit in time in the first 4 chapters, as if he's consciously resisting the conventional narrative structure, especially for a novella, that follows a standard chronology - begins with a rather dramatic midlife scene (main character Robert Grainier is 35 or so) on a bridge-construction crew in the great Northwest in about 1910, then next chapters move all around in time - we learn that Grainier lived into his 80s as we get a late scene of him watching a train (see title) in which he sees of all things Elvis Presley. Then story moves back to where first chapter had left off and we get a very dramatic and moving scene in which Grainier walks through the ash-strewn landscape after a massive forest fire - he's searching for the ruins of his house, and we learn that his wife and baby daughter, whom we'd met in first chapter, have died in the fire - and at last the book has some kind of story arc: Grainier's grief, and, perhaps, recovery. He was a lonely, orphaned boy who discovered love relatively late and had happiness for a short time only. A major part of the theme of Train Dreams is one of the oldest in literature: man against nature. Grainier works variously on the bridge crew, building trestles that allow trains (and later cars perhaps) to cut across chasms, and also on logging crews, stripping the forest and changing the landscape all around him - man conquers nature, but nature resists inevitably, as in the fire and in the death we see when a logger is felled by a fallen branch, a "widowmaker." This short work takes on the vast theme of how the human presence alters everything in the natural world and how our lives are shaped by nature.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Historical fiction and personal narrative - Train Dreams

Have just started Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams," and am caught up so far. TD was one of the finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that the irresponsible Pulitzer judges declined to award - I guess in their august opinion(s) there was not a single worthy book of fiction published in the U.S. in the past year! I don't think Train Dreams should necessarily have won, no matter how good it is - I am a little puzzled as to why the review panel would have selected a novella, even if published in book form, that first appeared in a magazine in 2002 or so - however, something should have won. Anyway, I'm always looking for good novellas, which I've found to be particularly effective and provocative in our book group - and TD is our June selection. First scene is very engaging, as the main character, Grainier (?) gets drawn into an arrest of a Chinese worker accused of stealing from the company store - it's 1910 in the Northwest, with a crew that's building bridges over those deep valleys of the west - enabling the railroads to run faster and smoother and to carry lumber out to the coast. Johnson is a writer who, from what I know of his work, rarely draws from personal experience: his settings are generally either historical or entirely imaginary. He's known as an author who never or rarely gives interviews, but in fact I did interview him on occasion of his 2nd novel, Fiskadoro, and I remember asking him about the setting - the Florida Keys, if I remember - and being surprised that he'd never been there. Some writers do work well this way, wanting the freedom of imagination rather than the obligation of factual and geographic veracity. I have no idea of Johnson has ever been to or lived in the Northwest (he seems a bit peripatetic - when I interviewed him he was living on the Cape), but it wouldn't surprise me if the setting of TD is entirely of his imagination - though the factual grounding in the work camps seems quite detailed and vivid (he is pretty well up on the names of all the positions in a logging crew) - and I give Johnson credit, he very smooth, seamless, in his historical research: his work does not feel studied or musty but it seems rather, almost as though he has lived the experience - even his historical fiction feels like personal narrative, quite a feat.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Two unreadable novels

I'll be cranky today but please don't misinterpret, I'm not a troglodyte nor do I believe that all novels should be entertaining, uplifting, morally just, and easy to read - however - there are some novels, even great novels, that seem to be among us primarily to be taught, or at least to be studied. Of course there are the massive examples such as Finnegans Wake, a territory into which I doubt anyone dares enter without a Virgil to guide the way. Here are two others, far less daunting, that I've just read and have been reading: First, Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts," which I posted on yesterday and made plain that I would not recommend that anyone read the book; then, read the Stanley Edgar Hyman intro to my ancient and maligned pb edition, and he has a lot to say about the religious aspects of the novel, about M.L.'s quest for truth, about the contrasts between the pastoral scenes (M.L's retreat to the countryside in Conn. with fiancee Betty) and the urban rot and decay, about the Oedipal themes and the homoerotic themes, and so forth - a very good introduction that makes it evident that there's a lot of material in this short novel, maybe even more than West was aware of, at least consciously, and yet - and yet - the experience of reading Miss Lonelyhearts is so unrelievedly unpleasant - why must anyone be subject to that, voluntarily? A second, William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!," has so many great aspects: occasionally beautiful and always striking language that is recognizably and uniquely Faulkner's and that clearly builds on the foundation he'd laid with earlier works such as Sound/Fury, examination of really important issues including race and class, portrayal of an entire society and a time of great crisis (South during Civil War), human, exciting action (a murder on the eve of a wedding), breadth and scope - shall I go on? So what's the problem? Honestly, does anyone find this novel to be in any way readable? I've been making furious marginal notes in my copy, just so I can keep track of who's speaking - in these 50 page narrations that sound nothing like recognizable human speech in any way - and though a lot happens on the plot level, or at leas a few very dramatic things happen - Faulkner narrates with such excruciating detail with sentences that are acrobatic marvels but are at times, often in fact, impenetrable - you really have to read this novel word by word, and perhaps in the end it's worth while but at this point I am, figuratively, throwing up my hands and saying, yes, it's great, but I'll leave it to others to spend a year or more fuguring out exactly why.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Suggest you miss Miss Lonelyhearts

Maybe it's a classic but classics, too, can get moldy over time and, whatever it's strengths, and there are some, I would not recommend Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" to anyone today - in its time, ca 1930 I think, it was probably considered bold and experimental for a variety of reasons: the short chapters with cryptic titles, the refusal to name the central character (always referred to as Miss Lonelyhearts, which leads to some delicious chapter-opening sentences, along the lines of : "Miss Lonelyhearts sat down and opened he mail..." Pronoun fun aside - there are so many scenes that read today are deeply troubling, not simply because of alcoholism and general irresponsibility, but because of extreme cruelty and extreme sexism: the women are objects who essentially hurl themselves at M.L. - why? - and in one troubling scene M.L. and one of his colleagues torment an old man, amid some veyr disturbing anti-gay comments. I know, I know - West, that self-hating Jew (aka Nathan Weinstein) and intellectual phony who apparently sneaked into Brown - then a bastion of anti-Semitism itself - on a faked transcript - ha! - clearly means for us to read the novella as an allegory or metaphor, though signifying what is unclear to me - and his somewhat Christ-like or perhaps Job-like main character is "redeemed" at the end when he realizes the power of love (after he gets his much-abused girlfriend pregnant) but not before there's some mayhem and the death of a sad, innocent, betrayed husband (the dramatic basis, I guess, for the 2 film versions of ML?). This novel is in a way a bridge between the great 19th-century alienated character (Bartleby) and the postwar 20th-century alienated characters, e.g., Holden Caulfield, Mersault - though note that the more recent alienated/existential characters are narrators, not objects of observation by a first-person narrator (Bartleby qv) or an omniscient narrator. The vary odd scenes of religious ranting, especially on the part of M.L.'s boss, Shrike, are especially effective and strange because of the generally tight, short declarative style, much influence by Hemingway I would guess. And the novella feels like a series of quick, flash scenes loosely connected - a technique that was much imitated and developed by dramatists over the 80 years since M.L. - but ultimately, despite its influences and and status as an early landmark of both absurdism and existentialism and a late if muddy and confusing example of literary allegory, there's too much unpleasantness in this novel - and I'm not being squeamish or overly politically correct here - for me to recommend it as anything other than an object of study.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Miss lonelyhearts

Yesterday started Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts which surprisingly I'd never read - a short novel almost a novella by today's standards w v short chapters each of which I think begins w words Miss lonelyhearts - eg ml and the fat thumb. Premise of ml is awesome - a social isolate has newspaper job as columnist writing advice for the sad and lovelorn. Many possibilities for irony and for development of character west very well read and a slight allusion lets us know that he's thinking of bartleby in his main character unnamed and called only ML. Many religious allusions as well and it's absurdly easy to cal ML a christ figure. There must be more significance to this one who gives others hope but is alienated and in despair himself. All that said book is weird and peculiar in tone - influential i think on the more antic of the postmodernists a generation later eg coover - but I think it's not as widely read today as some contemporaries eg o'connor - also comic and steeped in religion - because the jagged style is so off-putting. 40 pp in and it's about char and situation only w no plot per se.


Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jennifer Egan story New Yorker

I love the new yorker sci fi cover and give the Eds props for offering something different in the summer fiction issue this year tho thought and hoped that there might actually be some scifi in the mag to prove the point that scifi is crashing the gate - is it? - but they do at least include 3 stories ( have not yet read the 4th) that are experimental in form: stories by sam Lipsyte and j letham are pretty good at least forcing you to read with care to discern what's going on - but the real prize is Jennifer egan's story black box - I didn't love all the pieces in her novel/collection goon squad but appreciated her adventuresome interest in form - one chapter eg a story in ppt that already feels dated - but black box is a knockout a story in a series of several hundred tweets almost each of which could stand alone beautifully but that cohere to make a very thoughtful intense narrative. Maybe this is a one-off buy it's also one of those rare stories that shows new possibilities for fiction. Would be fun to have read it literally as a series of tweets and I think it's possible to do so.

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Faulkner's humor

"Absalom, Absalom!" shows how Faulkner can be really funny in his peculiar way - take the very long chapter 4 (I think) in which we learn about the friendship between Henry and Bon, which entails Bon's engagement to Henry's sister and ultimately Henry's shooting Bon to death on the eve of the intended wedding - F. has Quentin Compson's father (I think) narrate all of this to Quentin - Q., remember, had heard part of the story for Aunt Rosa, and apparently Compson senior needs to fill Q (and us) in on salient details: well, Compson narrates this in the most ornate Faulknerian prose for about 40 pages - in other words about 4 hours I would say and not a single passage in this entire narration sounds anything like what anyone in his right mind would ever actually say - it's pure writerly prose, you might say - and then, after hours of this - Q. breaks in with a word or two, something like: "Really?" - and then Compson sr. resumes. Why would Faulkner do this? Certainly not to make this chapter seem more like real dialogue - that's a lost cause by now! I think just for a kick, to make us laugh, to give the chapter a little bit of an edge. Then, there's also the dark humor that comes out of tragedy: some of F's description of life in the South and on the battlefront during the Civil War are as stark and realistic as anything you'll read, they remind me of Tolstoy in a way (though the prose is different by a mile) and they evoke pity for the South in ways I wouldn't expect - there are so many reasons to hold that society in contempt, but the suffering was real and universal (and in F much more stark and credible than in Gone with the Wind, that slice of baloney). And then the humor: one of the best scenes, recounted in a fragment (thank god) of a letter that must have been book-length! - the writer, Bon, describes capturing Union supplies, eagerly breaking into the boxes, and finding: stove polish. Who knows why? As he says: maybe there were orders to polish the stoves before burning the houses. He's using the stove polish as ink to write the letters - dark humor.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Faulkner's narrators - Absalom, Absalom!

Obviously we're not expected to take literally the voice of Quentin Compson's father (?) who narrates for him in an uninterrupted 40-page stream of pure Faulknerian ornamentation what he knows or thinks he knows about why and how Henry Sutpen killed his sister Judith's fiance, Bon, who was also his best friend, on the eve of their intended wedding - and why Henry and Judith's father, Thomas Sutpen, opposed the intended marriage - you could probably tell "just the facts" as Quentin knows or hears them in a few sentences - but of course that's not how Faulkner tells a story, so the story meanders and jumps around in time and explores every nuance of feeling and insight - in a way it's like Proust, I'm pretty sure Faulkner must have read some or all of Proust by the time he was writing "Absalom, Absalom!," but in tone it's very different: not precious and introspective but voluble and tart. So why does Faulkner tell the story this way, other than that it's his style as much as his fingerprints and DNA were his own? First, I think, it establishes the tone of Southern narration, that this is a society and culture in which everyone knows all about his neighbors and his or her community and history going back a century or more - they all have massive and extensive tales to tell, and the time in which to unfold these stories. Second, it's a narrative strategy to give a layer of credibility to the story, much as Conrad's narrators do: it's not just an author telling a story from his own imagination, it's a character relating what he knows. But at the same time this creates and opportunity for doubt - it's only one character and he may not know everything - and in this case he doesn't, as we can see if we've looked ahead at the brief character bios - I suspect that Q's father doesn't know the true reason why the Sutpen men opposed the marriage: Bon is Judith's half-brother. Faulkner will reveal that to us in some other manner at a later point in this very complex and challenging novel. BTW, it seems to me - maybe I'm wrong - that we know virtually nothing (from this novel) about Q's father, not his name, what he looks like, who he is, etc. He's just a voice, full of information.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Incest, bigamy, miscegenation: Scenes from a Faulkner Marriage

In Chapter 4 of William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!," Quentin's father? grandfather?, in one of those really long and totally impossible Faulkner narrations, tells Q some of what the elderly Rosa Coldfield either didn't know or intentionally omitted in her account of the rise and fall of the Sutpen family - she'd told about the fact that her niece Judith Sutpen was engaged but that Judith's brother, Henry, killed the fiance on eve of the wedding day and then left Yoknapatawpha County never to be seen again. Now Quentin learns more about what led to this killing: we know that Henry had been close friends with the finace, Bon, and had served in the Confederate forces with him. We now learn other key points: Bon hardly new Judith at all, had only visited the Sutpen Hundred maybe twice? - he was a New Orleans guy, and so everyone, especially in small-town Jefferson, looked up to him as a dashing sophisticate. But one thing Henry discovers on a visit to New Orleaans is that Bon has a child there - and perhaps, it's not clear if Henry knows this or not, a wife as well. Making matters more complicated: the child is pat-black. Then, there's a third element that we know if we're smart enough to have looked ahead at the family tree or bios that appears at the end, at least of this 1986 edition (not clear if Faulkner wrote these, I think he did - as he later added a preface to Sound and Fury, I guess because early readers were so troubled by the challenge of that book which now seems relatively easy): Bon is actually H. and J.'s half-brother (and himself part black). Not totally clear, yet, if it ever will be, when the various Sutpen's become aware of Bon's provenance: is the, at first, just a mysterious stranger whom Henry brings into the family fold? Of to Thomas Sutpen (and maybe Thomas's wife, Ellen) know that he's Sutpen's son? They do oppose the marriage - but not clear why. There are 3 strikes against the marriage: incest, bigamy, and miscegenation. In their minds - and in Henry's, when he kills Bon - which is paramount? In fact, when Henry kills Bon, I suspect that the main thing on his mind is that good old Southern virtue: honor. We'll see.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Faulkner has taught us how to read : Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner has taught us how to read - that is - how to read Faulkner novels, which have profoundly influenced must of the great writing of the 20th (and 21st?) century/ies. Yesterday started re-reading "Absalom, Absalom!," from about 1930, and I don't think any reader in its day could have read and understood it without having first read Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August - and I don't mean for the literal contents of the novels (thought that's helpful - Quentin Compson, for one, is a key player in both S&F and A,A!) but because the novels become increasingly in structure and arcane and baroque in language - AA is a difficult and challenging novel by any measure and at any time, though I think S&F is relatively straightforward now - though was a shock to those who first encountered it. AA tells the story of the Sutpen and C. (?) families, as narrated to Quentin by the elderly Rosa C. and with some details filled in for Q by someone, perhaps his father - the point is there are multiple narrative layers and several narrators and the story is told in increments and not in straight chronology, so the first chapter or two are very difficult and obscure but the whole picture begins take shape and cohere as we proceed through the novel - much like life itself, as we build understanding of people and places incrementally over time. In its scope and in its telling of the story of an entire (small) community over a long span of time through the lens or focus of a single deeply troubled family, AA (and other Faulkner novels) set a course and showed the way for many other great novels, though each of these has its own style: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Leopard, The God of Small Things, The Known World - to name just a few of the best. I recommend, if you pick up AA, that you buy a book so that you can write extensively in the margins to keep on top of what's going on in the story - it will help. A few sentences are so baroque and obscure that they elicited from me a marginal note of : huh? I think Faulkner moved more and more toward obscurity later in his career, almost to self-parody, and we can see the early shadings of that in AA - even the title. What the hell does that mean? - but the novel still stands as one of his greatest, perhaps the last great work (along w the Snopes triology) before he descended into alcoholism.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Re-reading great books

Am between books now so let me take a moment to offer a big shoutout to Ted Gioia who maintains a site with some extraordinary reviews and some of the best reading lists I've every come across (which I guess means our tastes largely agree): check out Ted's greatbooksguide.com to see what I mean. People often ask me for book suggestions, and I always have a few to offer, and have posted a few on this blog, under the key words lists or top 10 or "fiction in general." Ted has a terrific list of the 100 best novels - always subject for debate - and of the "new canon" (i.e., since 1985) and other lists. I find that just about everything on his list I either want to read or, more important, want to re-read: so many great books I've read and have totally lost, at least to recollection, though they have gone into forming how I think, how I read, and how I write. To be able to hold all that we've read in our conscious minds would be an amazing feat and gift - I suppose some great readers are able to do so. But most of us can't, and we should embrace the act of re-reading: coming back to great books a 2nd or 3rd time is a deepening and enriching experience, we approach literature differently as we grow, or at least as we age, finding new meanings and significance - sometimes when I come back to a great work it's as if I've never read it before, sometimes it is a recovery of an experience long lost. Thinking of one of my favorite passages from T.S. Eliot: we have had the experience, but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience, in a new form.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hamsun, Hunger, and Hitler : An unholy trinity

First, a correction - as I finished Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" and read the two intro essays, by IB Singer and translator Robert Bly - learned that the novel was actually written in 1890 (the 1920 date that I cited in earlier posts was of its appearance in English, I think) - which actually makes Hunger more of a precursor than I'd thought - a glimpse into the soul of 20th century literature from the late 19th! In any case, the book remains very dark and odd right up to the end, when the unnamed narrator rebukes himself for so readily giving away money that he desperately needed - and goes to the street vendor, a woman who sells cakes on the sidewalk - and tries to reclaim the money he'd given her by making some absurd argument that it was an advance payment for her cakes, which he proceeds to grab and gobble up - throughout the novel he oscillates between bizarre and extreme in his generosity and then cruel and abusive - obvious some sort of bipolar disorder, right, maybe laced with a dash of OCD? I really have to disagree with most of the points that Singer and Bly make in their intros: even though the life of this narrator in some ways parallels the early years of Hamsun, it's absurd to think of him as a young writer - he's obviously not a talented writer in any way, but a delusional madman - it appears to me that the editor buys his occasional essays out of pure charity. In a way, he's an anti-Job: it's not that he's fallen so far and suffered so much, it's almost as if the way others treat him is a measure of their humanity, because he is so strange and alienated. Over the course of the novel, many treat him quite kindly - I doubt it would be the same today, not in America, anyway. I have been trying to see if there are signs of proto-Fascism in the novel, knowing that Hamsun became enamored of Hitler late in his life, but I can't honestly see that unless it's in the narrators contempt for the people of Christiana, who treat him with a lot of kindness and deference, for the most part. Singer, however, though he does describe Hamsun's support Hitler, is a complete apologist - arguing that Hamsun was old at the, that his talents were waning. No - there's no excuse, and Singer should know that as well as anyone. I believe in support for fellow writers, but there are limits.